Spring allergies: ’Tis the season, everyone’s sneezin’

Beautiful flowering trees at Weston Town Hall can be harbingers of doom for those who suffer from allergies. —Debbie Rehr photo

Beautiful flowering trees at Weston Town Hall can be harbingers of doom for those who suffer from allergies. —Debbie Rehr photo

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Forsythia like these at Morehouse Farm Park are among the first flowering plants to make an appearance in the spring — and among the first signs that allergy season has arrived. —Kimberly Donnelly photo

Sneezing, watery eyes, nasal congestion, runny nose, and itchy throat. All those are signs that allergy season is here.

Those beautiful pink flowering trees throughout town are hiding a not so pretty secret. They are full of microscopic tree pollen, which is making allergy sufferers miserable.

Allergy season is in full bloom from April to June in Connecticut, when tree pollen is at its highest, according to Dr. Philip Hemmers of Weston, a specialist with Allergy Associates of Fairfield County. “We’re not at peak yet, we still have a few weeks to ago,” Dr. Hemmers said.

Allergy sufferers are well aware of the fine greenish-yellow dust from trees that coat their cars. But tree pollen itself, which helps trees, grasses, and flowers reproduce, is microscopic and is not visible to the human eye.

“Pretty much from spring to fall, something is giving off pollen. Tree pollen is usually the spring culprit, while grasses get you in the summer and ragweed in the fall,” Dr. Hemmers said.

The worst tree pollen comes from birch trees, Dr. Hemmers said. Like a stealth bomber, a birch tree allergy can lead to food allergies. People who are allergic to birch trees often find themselves getting allergic reactions when they eat tree fruits like apples or cherries because they have proteins similar to those of birch trees.

“It’s almost like mistaken identity. When you take a bite of an apple, your body thinks you are eating birch tree pollen,” Dr. Hemmers said.

On the positive side, a birch tree pollen allergy is much more of a nuisance and much less severe and dangerous than a peanut or shrimp food allergy, he said.

Invading organisms

According to the National Allergy Bureau (NAB), an allergic reaction begins in the immune system, which protects the body from invading organisms that can cause illness.

For someone with an allergy, the immune system mistakes an otherwise harmless substance (an allergen) as an invader and overreacts by producing immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These antibodies travel to cells that release histamine and other chemicals, causing an allergic reaction.

An allergic reaction typically triggers symptoms in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, lining of the stomach, or on the skin. For some people, allergies can also trigger symptoms of asthma. In the most serious cases, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis can occur, according to the NAB.

Dr. Philip Hemmers

Dr. Philip Hemmers

While allergy season is riding high right now, Dr. Hemmers said there will be some relief in July and August. “That’s the safest time. Grass stops releasing pollen in the summer, so there is a period of quiet until fall, when molds and ragweed allergies kick in,” Dr. Hemmers said.

Dr. Hemmers keeps careful track of pollen levels, because he is a certified pollen counter. He is specially trained to monitor pollen levels for such groups as NAB and the Weather Channel.

Dr. Hemmers monitors the pollen right in his own back yard in Weston. To do that, he leaves out a glass slide, collects the pollen, and then analyzes it under a microscope to see how much there is.

“When you hear about the pollen count in Connecticut, there’s a good chance that information came from Weston,” Dr. Hemmers said.

He said allergies have gotten worse over time because of global warming and increased carbon dioxide levels. “We’re having higher plant biomass, and the warmer weather is to leading to more pollen production,” he said.

Pollen prevention

On warm and windy days, it’s easy for pollen to get into a person’s eyes and hair, and cause allergic reactions. Dr. Hemmers recommends taking the following steps to avoid pollen.

• Stay indoors when possible. Since pollen comes from trees, on windy days the outdoors is an allergy sufferer’s enemy because it blows pollen all around.

• Keep windows and doors closed and turn on the air conditioner. Change the AC filter at least once a month to keep it clean. HEPA filters also help.

• Change clothing and wash. Skin and hair hold a lot of pollen, so on high pollen count days, take a shower, give the kids a shower, and change into clean clothes to wash away the pollen on them.

• Don’t dry laundry outside. Clothing and bedding such as sheets are like pollen magnets when they’re hanging outside on the clothesline. There’s nothing worse for an allergy sufferer than putting their face down at night on a pillowcase doused in pollen.

• Wash pets. If Fido and Fluffy go outside, they’re pollen magnets, too, and need to be cleaned.

Allergy treatment

Dr. Hemmers has seen a slow but steady increase in the number of patients suffering from allergies with complications such as asthma and sinus problems. “I’ve had a lot of kids come in with their eyes swollen shut,” he said.

When allergy symptoms are bad, he prescribes medication. For mild allergy symptoms, he initially recommends over-the-counter treatments such as Claritin, Allegra, or Zyrtec.

If that doesn’t work he recommends prescription medication. “Nasal sprays are the best because they’re more direct at getting to where the problem is and they work well with less side effects,” he said.

Patients can also get allergy shots to prevent allergy attacks.

Originally from New York, Dr. Hemmers moved to Weston in 2007. He and his wife, Alyson, have three children and a dog.

Dr. Hemmers said the reason he decided to specialize in allergies is because he was an allergy sufferer as a child. “I was that kid that had to carry tissues everywhere I went,” he said.

As a teen, Dr. Hemmers received allergy shots and they were a success. Now his allergy symptoms are nonexistent. “This is why I am an allergy doctor, to help others with their allergies,” he said.

Dr. Hemmers is board-certified in allergy and immunology and in pediatrics. He has three office locations in Connecticut, and is affiliated with Bridgeport Hospital and St. Vincent’s Medical Center.

For more information on Dr. Hemmers and to get his daily pollen count, visit allergyct.com.

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